Between Sunday the 22nd of October and Monday the 23rd of October I was fortunate enough to participate in the Commemorations for the Battle of El Alamein and the North Africa Campaigns. During this time I was allocated to the Veteran Support Team, which provided movement support for the veterans travelling to and from the Commemoration period.
Sun 22 October
1030am –The day started with coffee and seeing some of the media interviews and photos with a small number of veterans who had arrived in Canberra the day before.
1045am – Morning tea has already been set out by the Hotel staff and I have seen the veteran support staff flat out already getting ready for the other 20 veterans arriving later today. Morning tea has also my chance to meet some of the other volunteers from the different states.
1100am – Briefing time for the next few days and I have already forgotten nearly all of the biographies that I have written a few days earlier. We have lunch and the airport volunteers are off to receive the first group of veterans as they fly into Canberra airport.
1pm – Veterans begin arriving. The veterans are incredibly excited to be here. I help some of them up the steps to the Abode Hotel in Woden and as I show them to their rooms and their welcome bags. It’s been really nice to see their faces have been lighting up as they see the special treatment they are getting. The veterans keep saying that they don’t deserve it, but it nice to be able to help pay tribute for the others who didn’t come back. I got to see one veteran, John Hair, sitting in the lobby waiting for his mate, Frederick Maurer, who he hadn’t seen since he fought in North Africa 75 years ago. He was really patient, but you could see the anticipation in his eyes, apparently John and Fred were in the same unit. John was wounded by shrapnel in the leg and thought Fred, who was wounded in the eye, was dead and only found out he was alive when he came to the commemoration.
5pm – I missed the reunion between John and Fred, but I heard it was really nice when they finally met each other. It has started raining and we need to get the veterans across to the Hellenic Club for a special pre-commemorative reception dinner. Fortunately the bus driver, Kevin, is ferrying them across in small waves. As they make their way across in the minibus some brave the rains, still as determined as they were 75 years ago.
6pm – The Repatriation Commissioner, Mark Kelly, has given his welcome speech and briefed the veterans on the next day and now it is time to sit down to the three course meal. Appropriating extra bread rolls from the wait staff for our table, this is the first break for some of the staff who have been running around all day. The veterans and their careers, usually sons or daughters but one of whom brought his grandson, have been happily chatting away.
7:30pm – The meals have wrapped up and the spread was pretty decent. The veterans have been swapping stories, the veterans have had no worries in talking to the volunteers. The team ducks around to get all the name tags out and gets the table lists ready for tomorrow.
8:30pm – The dinner has wrapped up, the repatriation commissioner and deputy president have been talking with the veterans all evening and start to help shepherd them out. As I pack up the final tables and the laptop, which has been showing the pictures of them during the war, I realise that two of the veterans have decided to go down stairs for one last roadie before going home. I know that you can take the man out of the Army, but it’s now confirmed to me that you can never take the Army out of the man. I hope I have their energy at 97. We shepherd the last veterans onto the bus and I say farewell to the team staying in the hotel before I jumping into the cab to go home.
Mon 23 October
830 am – I have arrived to the hotel early and we are straight into loading spare wheelchairs and water bottles into the bus ready for the day.
930 am – We are ready to load the buses, but the veterans have been in the lobby for the last half an hour, the military teaches nothing if not promptness and these veterans haven’t forgotten it. I am helping the nurses load the bus ready to catch them encase they fall. The nurse, Jayne, has done this all before but every time they nearly miss a step, I worry they may fall. Jayne, who is a former US Air Force Nursing Officer is trying to get order and these veterans to wait their turn to jump on the bus, but has been coming up unsuccessfully against veterans more eager to get to the arboretum than we are. I guess you can’t exactly yell at a 95 year old for being too eager. But with the bus now loaded we are on our way to the National Arboretum for the Reception.
1015am – The veterans have arrived at the National Arboretum. The veterans get off the bus, I remain prepared to catch them as their hearts are more eager than their feet. The veterans begin to explore the views of the Arboretum and continue their conversations with their old battalion mates, almost as though the 75 years apart never happened.
11am – The Egyptian Ambassador, the Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the Repatriation Commissioner have arrived and it’s time for the event to begin. The Director of the AWM has begun to deliver his speech on the battle. He delivered an interesting speech mentioning one of the units involved in the battle. The speech has been a good way to drive home what this work is really all about, trying to honour those who gave up everything thousands of miles from home surrounded by people who, at such as young age, become their family.
12pm – The reception is over. The poem delivered by one of the veterans, El Alamein Octoberfest, was a nice combination of bitter-sweet reflection of the horrors of war, and typical Aussie dark humour. But now I run around to help set up the chairs for a group photos for the veterans. The photos have ended well and so we go around serving drinks and later lunch so the veterans can sit back and enjoy their day. I was surprised to realise that one of the aid-de-camps, an officer who aids a senior military officers, went through the Australian Defence Force Academy in the year above me and somehow recognised me, I guess that is the nature of Canberra.
2:30pm – The lunch is over, and after a quick selfie among the volunteers we load the buses and are off to the War memorial. On the way, our bus drivers gives a quick tour of the highlights of Canberra.
3pm – We have arrived at the war memorial. I take a small group of veterans off to do phone interviews with their local radios. It is amazing to hear some of their stories of them adapting to life in the civilian world, if they can do it, any of us from the military can. After one of the interviews I escort Dennis, the interviewee, and his daughter Maureen on a tour of the AWM.
4pm – After quickly stopping by the Special Forces section, I take Dennis up to the World War 2 section. It’s astonishing to hear some of his stories and how relaxed he is telling me about a 24 hour supply drive he did from Palestine to Egypt. As we pass a 1000 pound German bomb he tells me about his time in Tobruk, when a German 1000 pound was dropped but didn’t go off. When the engineers arrived at the bomb they defused it and opened where the bomb fuse should have been. The engineers instead of a charge, found saw dust and a note saying, Good luck from Czechoslovakia. I can’t believe the daring of some the resistance to pull that off.
4:30 – We make our way to the AWM Pool of Reflection for the Last Post Ceremony. As I see the guard mount their posts I remember how much I don’t miss doing ceremonial drill. The ceremony begins and before the anthem is played the veterans stand to attention. My heart stops for a second as I help some of the veterans stand to their feet, their bodies may be shaking, but I doubt anything is going to stop them from getting to attention at least one last time.
5pm – The last post ceremony, it ran a bit over but I don’t think that anyone has minded. The Minister, Dan Tehan, talks to each of the 22 veterans thanking them individually for their service. To see each of their faces light up as the Minister stoops down to shake their hands is something truly special. I help move the veterans for their last photos with the Minster and a photo with the Chief of Army and Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army. As the veterans have photos taken, I think they are still in a state of shock as these Generals and Cabinet members come to pay homage to them and their service. With each hand shake, these veterans who were yesterday general members of the public, realise that they are the VIP today, not the generals nor the politicians, but men who, at 18 were fighting in a war so far from home to secure the freedom that we enjoy today.
5:30 – The photos are over and we load the bus one last time. The Repatriation Commissioner jumps on the bus to say one last good bye to the veterans and congratulates on our effort for the last two efforts. We drive back to the hotel and the bus driver, Kevin, talks to the veterans and thanks them for their service and all that we have now as a result of their sacrifice. It’s a lovely way to end the last two days. We escort the veterans back into the hotel. As some of the volunteers head across the road for a celebratory dinner we see the veterans having one last roadie before they hit they hay.
8:30pm – Dinner is over and I head back home. I am tired but it has been a wonderful chance to be able to serve these veterans. Men like those from my own family who went off to the war. Some struggle to understand why they are receiving special treatment, but for our team, it’s our small way to be able to thank them for all that they have done. These veterans, those old in body are still young in spirit, and represent all those who didn’t get to come back. To have been part of this experience, to recognise the men that I have read so much about has been a special privilege that I will not forget.